The NSW government will not extend an anti-homophobia program that has been trialled in NSW government schools, despite an independent review finding that it could 'bring about some positive changes in the school climate'. The move, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, was not announced by the NSW Department of Education.
The Proud Schools Program
In 2011, the NSW Proud Schools Program (the Program) began as a pilot in 12 NSW government schools. In June 2014, an independent evaluation of the program was released - the Formative Evaluation of the NSW Proud Schools Pilot: Stage 2 (the Report). The Program is summarised by the Report as being 'to develop a framework to support secondary schools to address homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism, and provide a safe and supportive environment for same sex attracted and gender questioning students'.
The Report acknowledged that the Program came in the context of evidence that 'there is a strong relationship between homophobic abuse and self-harm and suicide and between homophobic abuse and drug and alcohol abuse and that homophobia impacts negatively on health and well-being outcomes more generally'. The 'Writing Themselves in 3: The third national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people' study, which informed the Program, found that:
- 61% of students reported verbal abuse homophobia;
- 18% of students reported physical abuse related to homophobia; and
- 69% of students reported other forms of homophobia such as being excluded and rumours.
The focus of the Program was on strategies that combat homophobic bullying and attitudes in schools. Schools consulted with stakeholders and external agencies to develop their own strategies. These included:
- measures to combat homophobic language, such as the use of the phrase 'that's so gay';
- a 'Wear it Purple Day' initiative to raise awareness about youth suicide, depression and anxiety specific to sex, sexuality and gender diverse people; and
- gay-straight alliances at school to provide support to students.
The Program also focused on the role of policies in schools. In NSW government schools, these policies were also informed by the obligation to comply with NSW Equal Opportunity legislation. Although such policies state that all forms of discrimination are unacceptable, the Report found that policies which specifically articulated that homophobic and transphobic bullying were seen as unacceptable 'helps same sex attracted and gender questioning young people feel safer and protects against stress and mental health problems'.
When contacted by School Governance, a NSW Department of Education and Communities spokesperson said: 'The Department of Education and Communities is committed to providing a safe and supportive schooling environment for every student. The Proud Schools pilot program supported and complemented the further development of a public school environment that does not tolerate discrimination against same sex attracted and gender diverse students. The Department is also supporting the implementation of the National Safe Schools Coalition Australia program which is backed by the Australian Government to provided professional learning and resources directly to schools to help address homophobia.'
Implications for non-government schools
Despite the fact that government and non-government schools operate in different regulatory environments, the obligation to educate, protect and care for students remains the same.
Interestingly, non-government schools are specifically exempt from portions of anti-discrimination legislation. Non-government schools may discriminate against students on the basis of sex, transgender status or homosexuality. This has lead to a move by one state MP to introduce legislation to remove these exemptions from the law, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Study found that evidence-based planning was important. That is, a tailored approach to implementing strategies based on results. Professional learning was also emphasised as an effective tool to ensure that teachers were supported to deliver these new programs.
The Study concluded that the strategies implemented as part of the Program could be replicated in other schools.
About the author
Peter Fu is the Assistant Editor – School Governance. He can be contacted here.